Canadians vote progressive when crisis hits

By Dr Clayton Chin
Senior Lecturer In Political Theory, University of Melbourne

In an election that quickly became about global crises, surprisingly the confirmed result is that little has changed in the existing political landscape of Canadian politics. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has won the right to lead the 44th Canadian Parliament with an almost identical result to the previous election in 2019.

Trudeau now seems to have called an election that ended up increasing his control of the House of Commons, Canada’s lower house in parliament, by just 4 seats. Projected to win just 159 seats in this election, he is still short of the 170 needed for a majority.

This status quo result is perhaps fitting for a campaign period that was both underwhelming and deeply frustrating for the electorate. Originally polling well, Trudeau suffered an immediate drop in the polls after announcing the campaign to a frustrated electorate who never seemed to buy the argument it was needed.

However, while this seemed to buoy the opposition, those effects slowly wore off and resulted in the electoral repeat of 2019.

So, while this election was in one sense a failure for Trudeau and the Liberals, the post-election narrative is that it is an equal if not greater failure for most of the federal opposition parties. All of them failed to translate a scandal-laden incumbent party and frustrated electorate into any substantial gains.

For example, the Conservative Party under Erin O’Toole seems set to retain exactly the same amount of seats (119) it already had. This has already cost one leader their job with more to likely to follow.

An older man in a suit stands in front of the Canadian flag
The Conservatives tried to be simultaneously pro-vaccine and anti-mandates. Pic: Erin O'Toole/Flickr

Establishing the source of this result has confused political commentators over recent days. However, a number of key policy issues seems to have caused key swings to the Liberals. Or rather, several issues seemed to worry voters about the Conservatives, pushing moderates and progressives towards the Liberals in an effort to avoid a conservative government.

Unsurprisingly, all of these have to do with the complex and deep crises facing Canada and the world.

First, at the end of one of the worst fire seasons in Canadian history, the Conservative Party proposed the least ambitious climate change policy, with an emissions reduction target (30%) well below Canada’s current Paris Agreement goal (40-45%), and no plan to phase out fossil fuels.

Second, firearms policy has been especially live in Canada in recent years due to both the continued high presence of shootings in neighbouring US and several notable attacks in Canada, including the 2020 Nova Scotia attacks and the 2017 Quebec City Mosque shooting.

Since 2015, the Liberal government has been very active on gun control, passing laws to increase regulation (Bill C-71) and prohibit “assault-style rifles”. O’Toole originally promised to roll this back, but after a significant negative backlash, modified this to maintain the ban while conducting a review.

Finally, naturally, the pandemic and the issue of vaccine mandates was centre-stage in the campaign. Trudeau has been a strong proponent of vaccine mandates while O’Toole and the Conservatives tried to walk the perilous line of being pro-vaccine and anti-mandates at the same time.

The result was that while Trudeau received quite a bit of deep hostility, and even violence on the campaign trail,  O’Toole created mistrust and uncertainty among moderate Canadians on his vaccine policy.

A masked scientist holds a vile of COVID-19 vaccine
Pic: Flickr/US Secretary of Defense

What is perhaps more surprising about the election campaign are the issues that failed to garner attention. The usual identity politics were oddly absent: Quebec sovereignty failed to be an issue (until a controversial question in the English language debate briefly changed this) and the Bloc Quebecois was largely silent; immigration was barely mentioned; and even Indigenous reconciliation had only a muted presence.

The latter is notable given the last year which has seen the repeated discovery of mass graves of Indigenous children around former residential schools in Canada. These starkly confirmed what many Canadians already knew: that these institutions were sites of some of the most horrific abuse and violence in Canadian history.

So what does this all mean?

In an election that changed nothing and which fixated on the global crises currently affecting Canada and the world, Canadians ultimately illustrated that their discomfort with Conservative politics is too strong to make them electable despite their increasingly thin patience with Trudeau and the Liberals.

This means the pressure is very much on for Trudeau to produce progress on these big issues.

A laptop screen shows Justin Trudeau on Zoom
The pandemic took centre-stage in the campaign. Pic: Flickr

On the other hand, we shouldn’t ignore the symbolic value of the election which once again demonstrated a significant support for progressive politics. While Trudeau framed the election as giving whoever governed the mandate to lead Canada into its recovery from the pandemic, the larger take-away is that 219 of the 338 seats in the Canadian parliament went to centre-left of left parties (the Liberals, Bloc Quebecois, New Democrats and Greens).

And, this result occurred during the most moderate Conservative campaign in three decades. O’Toole claimed “this is not your dad’s Conservative party anymore” and ran a pro-choice, LGBTQ-friendly, climate-conscious, and worker oriented campaign.

While the hard-right People’s Party under Maxine Bernier did manage to increase their vote share (with no seats), the dominant narrative is that their presence only hurt the Conservative result by association with moderate voters.

One can of course question these claims, but the point remains that the overall outcome of this election was symbolically progressive. For Canadians, progressive politics are the answer to global crises.

Banner image: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Source: Flickr


health; politics; election; policy Health; Politics; Election; Policy canada Canada

Election Watch: Past Editions